The Distribution of National Income (part 2)

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We have been looking at a report on the distribution of national income from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, authored by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. What makes it special is its attempt to account for all forms of income, not just those most often reported in surveys and tax returns. Based on this more complete accounting, the authors conclude that between 1980 and 2014, the top tenth of the adult population increased their share of the pre-tax national income from 34.2% to 47.0%. The share going to the next two-fifths of the population declined from 45.9% to 40.5%, and the share going to the bottom half of the population declined from 19.9% to 12.5%. During this period, economic growth was sluggish compared to the postwar era (1946-1980), but average real income more than doubled for the top tenth, while remaining essentially unchanged for the bottom half.

These figures are only for pre-tax income, however. They leave open the question of what role taxes and government spending play in the distribution of national income. Does post-tax income tell a different story?

Post-tax income

By considering the distribution of the entire national income, the report challenges the way we normally think about after-tax income. In our everyday experience, it’s what’s left after the taxes are taken out. That makes it always less than gross income. But in the national income accounting, total post-tax income and pre-tax income are the same! That’s because the national income does not go down just because some of it is taxed. The tax dollars are spent directly or indirectly on someone’s behalf, and so they can be counted as somebody’s income. Post-tax income is not a reduction in national income, but just a redistribution of national income.

The calculation of post-tax income from pre-tax income requires two steps: the subtraction of taxes paid, and the addition of government benefits received. Taxes include all levels (federal, state, local) and all types (income, sales, payroll, property). Government benefits include both monetary transfers (earned income tax credit, cash assistance payments, food stamps) and in-kind transfers (mainly health benefits through Medicare and Medicaid). Some cash income is already included in pretax income, such as Social Security payments.

The trickiest type of government benefit to account for is “collective consumption expenditures.” This is government spending on behalf of society in general. One might apportion it equally, on the assumption that each citizen gets the same benefit from it. But the researchers distribute it in proportion to other income, reasoning that higher-income people usually get more benefits from general public spending. For example, wealthier people are more likely to live in communities where the taxes support higher spending per student in the public schools. They are also more likely to be shareholders who benefit from the profits earned by defense contractors. The authors acknowledge that “our treatment of public goods could easily be improved as we learn more about who benefits from them.”

What if the government spends more than it receives in tax revenue? Then the deficit has to be allocated to individuals too, as a kind of negative benefit. Otherwise, total benefits received would be larger than total taxes paid, making post-tax income larger than total national income, upsetting the logic of the entire analysis.

The distribution of taxes and benefits

In general, the distribution of taxes and benefits is mildly progressive, but not markedly so. With all forms of taxation considered, higher incomes are a little more heavily taxed. The effective tax rates are 33.9% for the top tenth of adults, 28.6% for the next two-fifths, and 24.4% for the bottom half. The effective tax rate for the adult population as a whole is 30.5%.

Each group’s share of all taxes paid depends on how much income they have to begin with, as well as the rate at which it is taxed. In 2014, the top tenth got 47.0% of the pre-tax income and paid 52.2% of the taxes (hardly an unreasonable burden in my humble opinion). The next two-fifths got 40.5% of the income and paid 38% of the taxes. The bottom half of the population got 12.5% of the income and paid 10% of the taxes.

On the government benefits side, the top tenth got the smallest share–26.0%–which is lower than their share of income and taxes, but still much higher than their share of population. Although they didn’t qualify for means-tested assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps, they got a lot of the general benefits of government spending. The next two-fifths, however, got the largest share–41.6%–roughly proportional to their share of the population. What they pay in taxes they get back in benefits such as good schools. The lower half of the population got 32.6% of the benefits, which is much more than their tax burden but much less than their 50% share of the population.

The redistribution of national income

The result of government taxation and spending is that a modest portion of national income is redistributed, primarily from the top tenth of the population to the bottom half.  A simple comparison of pre- and post-tax income shows this clearly.

Because the top tenth paid more in taxes than they received in benefits, their post-tax share of national income was 8 percentage points lower than their pre-tax share in 2014 (39.0% vs. 47.0%).

For the next two-fifths of the population, pre- and post-tax income came out about the same. They started out with 40.5% of the pre-tax income, paid 38% of the taxes, got 41.6% of the government benefits, and wound up with 41.6% of the after-tax national income. All the figures are roughly proportional to their 40% population size, so this group didn’t win or lose much from income redistribution.

The bottom half of the population gained more in benefits than they paid in taxes, so their post-tax share of national income was 6.9 points greater than their pre-tax share (19.4% vs. 12.5%). That difference consists mainly of non-cash benefits. That’s because their meager pretax incomes–averaging $16,200–were taxed at 24.4%, and that more than offset any cash benefits they received. The net benefits they got were primarily from health insurance programs.

To summarize, in 2014 the US transferred 8% of the national income by taxing the top tenth of the population, with 7 points of that going to the bottom half and 1 point to the other two-fifths. The transfer reduced the top tenth’s sizeable after-tax income by 17%. But the transferred income loomed much larger in the lives of the people at the bottom who received it in one form or another. Since they had so much less to begin with, it boosted their income by 54%. In dollar terms, it meant an increase in average income from $16,200 to $25,000, a significant improvement, but still leaving them far behind everyone else.

Redistribution and the trend toward inequality

Has the redistribution of income through taxes and government spending helped to offset the trend toward greater inequality? One would expect that as the rich got richer, they would be forced into higher tax brackets, increasing the tax revenue available for redistribution. One might also expect that as incomes at the bottom stagnated, political pressure would build to increase spending to augment them.

The point about tax revenue has some truth to it. Between 1980 and 2014, the top tenth increased their share of pre-tax national income from 34.2% to 47.0%, but some of that gain was offset by taxes. Still, their after-tax share of national income went from 29.5% to 39.0%. The increase in post-tax income was about three-quarters of the increase in pre-tax income. In other words, they got to keep three-fourths of their gains.

For the other nine-tenths of the population, tax offsets worked to reduce losses instead of gains. For the bottom half, the decline in their share of post-tax income was 85% as large as the decline in their share of pre-tax income. For the two-fifths of the population in between, the decline in their share of post-tax income was only  59% as large as the decline in their share of pre-tax income. To put it another way, the government absorbed 15% of the losses for the bottom half and 41% of the losses for the two-fifths in the upper middle of the distribution.

What the country did not do in those years was increase the overall rate of taxation or make the tax rates more progressive. The average tax rate considering all taxes went down slightly from 30.8% to 30.5%. Moreover, the effective rate of taxation went down for the upper half of the population (due mainly to income tax cuts), but went up for the lower half (due mainly to increases in payroll taxes). That’s why the government absorbed more losses for the upper-middle class than for the bottom half. Redistribution from top to bottom could still go up a little, because the rich had more money that could be taxed. But non-progressive tax policies left most of the increase in inequality untouched.

As for the second point, about political pressure to increase spending on the poor, that was outweighed by pressure to cut tax rates for the middle and upper classes. Between 1980 and 2014, the percentage of national income going to finance government benefits for the bottom half remained stuck around 10%, while benefits for the upper half remained around 20%. The upper middle class played a crucial political role here. With their own share of the national income shrinking, a majority of them sided with the rich in supporting low taxes, rather than with the poor in supporting policies to reduce inequality. I will have more to say about the political implications of the income distribution in my next post.

Continued

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